Managing the private encryption keys to the kingdom

At its core the PCI Data Security Standard is nothing more than a series of guidelines that constitute security best practices. But companies that institute programs to better protect cardholder data can also leverage and extend these efforts throughout their business, ensuring that other sensitive customer, employee and partner data is better protected.

Data loss a mystery for many businesses

Encryption is a critical element of any security strategy and is widely leveraged to protect data and, when properly managed, satisfies a growing body of regulations such as PCI DSS. Yet managing the increasing key and certificate volumes has reached a tipping point as enterprises increase their encryption deployments. Poorly managed, lost or stolen encryption keys can lead to failed audits, data breaches and system downtime.

PCI DSS and key management

The PCI standard provides specific guidelines for achieving and maintaining compliance. The 12 primary sections are broken into a number of requirements. Requirements 3.5 and 3.6 of Section 2 offer specific language that define how encryption keys are to be managed in order to achieve compliance.

Note that the standard does not distinguish or suggest priority treatment between symmetric and private key management. Both key types must be properly secured in order to be PCI DSS compliant. PCI requirement 3 mandates proper key management to protect against "both disclosure and misuse" and must be fully "documented and implemented" for all key types.

When data is protected by encrypting it with a private key and a certificate, the key becomes the data that must be protected. If the private key is not well managed and protected, the risk of data loss or theft increases dramatically. This threat becomes particularly acute when data is protected by keys that reside in a container or "keystore" (or on multiple keystores) with shared, administrative access. The keys that protect the data are often accessible to multiple administrators with no audit or access controls, and are often distributed widely and insecurely within organizations.

Private key management

Two of the 12 PCI DSS requirements apply specifically to the use and proper management of SSL certificates and the private keys they rely on to ensure protection of data in transit. Section 2 of the PCI standard mandates that cardholder data be encrypted when stored or transmitted over open networks. The data is protected as long as the decryption or private key is protected -- as the encrypted data cannot be decrypted and consumed without the key. A lost or mismanaged key can mean that companies may become locked out from their own data.

How do typical organizations secure and manage private keys -- the keys required to encrypt data in transit? How are the keys protected against loss, misuse or theft? These become especially important questions given that, according to Gartner, the majority of data breaches are executed from inside organizations. In most cases, these private keys are not being protected.

The PCI DSS requirements for private key management cannot be accomplished in an IT environment that relies on manual processes. There are both security risks and operational challenges when administrators attempt to perform these steps manually. Manual administration exposes organizations to a host of security vulnerabilities, either because the administrators are not following best practices (including those in PCI DSS) or because they have malicious intent.

In fact, in spite of best-practice suggestions and specific key management requirements in the PCI standard, private keys are not well protected -- due to lax distribution processes as well as the poor and infrequent keystore password rotation practices -- and are frequently protected with the same password across hundreds of administrative keystores. Administrators also often have direct access to the keystore(s) and duplicate the keys in them for distribution, and they often reuse them on other systems and applications throughout the infrastructure.

These keys -- shared by all and protected by none -- are, in essence, the keys to the kingdom. With them, an insider with privileged keystore access can, working alone or with an outside hacker, gain access to the protected data or even to the authentication (user name and password) information meant to secure it.

In its 2009 report "Where Does End-to-End Encryption for PCI End?" Gartner recommended that companies encrypt all sensitive data in transit, even when the data is being transmitted over internal, private networks. This goes beyond what PCI DSS requires, yet is certainly a best practice. Gartner also specifically calls out the importance of properly protecting decryption keys, which for data in transit means private keys. This implies an inherent security risk in poorly managed private keys used to secure network traffic.

Technical specs

When SSL is used to encrypt data in transit, the certificate is used to authenticate the client to the server and then the public key contained in the certificate is used to encrypt a symmetric key that is used to encrypt the ensuing two-way communication. Thus, if administrators are able to gain access to the "decryption key", which in this case is the private key that resides on the server, they can access the symmetric key and decrypt the data. This can be done asynchronously if the network stream is captured. If the wrong person has access to or obtains a of copy of that key, then the data is at risk and can be compromised.

The need to protect these keys from hackers becomes even more significant in the context of Gartner's other finding: "The Gartner survey found that retailers are mostly concerned about unauthorized access to their systems by insiders, not outsiders…. Insiders typically cause the most damage because they know where to find sensitive corporate personal, financial account and other information .... As you secure your enterprise systems, remember that insiders with privileged and knowledgeable access can cause significantly more damage than an outside hacker acting alone."

In most organizations, these private keys are not being protected from either external or internal threats. In fact, despite best practices and specific key management requirements in the PCI DSS standard, keys are not rotated at appropriate intervals and are frequently protected with the same password across hundreds of keystores.

Enterprise solutions

Enterprise key management and accompanying initiatives have been hot topic in security in recent years. Yet, according to industry analysts, large organizations with vast encryption deployments are overly focused on protecting data and managing the encryption keys within specific technology silos (such as databases, file servers and endpoints). To be successful, enterprises need to view the encryption management challenge more holistically.

The cost of preventative measures, including automated management tools, is often far less than the total cost of a breach, particularly when long-term costs like lost business opportunities are considered.

According to The Ponemon Institute's 2009 Cost of a Data Breach study, "The investment required to prevent a data breach is dwarfed by the resulting costs of a breach. With average breach costs totaling $6.6 million, the return on investment (ROI) and justification for preventative measures is clear."

If nothing else, fines and other financial incentives make a strong business case for a PCI compliance program. Organizations should evaluate more enterprise-focused encryption management solutions. Such solutions must address key and certificate life-cycle management across the entire infrastructure, independent of the encryption provider, encryption asset, application or operating environment.

Who's managing the private keys to your kingdom?

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This story, "Managing the private encryption keys to the kingdom" was originally published by Network World.

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